A Father’s Blessing is a Boy’s Greatest Gift

According to Roman myth, it had been foretold that one of the sons of Saturn would overthrow him, just as he had overthrown his father, Caelus. To prevent this, Saturn ate his children moments after each was born.

In every boy’s life there is a moment when he imagines his destiny outside the expectations of his parents. When that time comes, the deepest wound a boy can suffer is not receiving his father’s blessing.

My dad never overcame such devastating blow.

At age seven, right before World War II, he escaped Germany with his mother and moved to Guatemala to begin a new life at my grandparent’s estate, which, at the time, led out to grassy fields, steep ravines, streams, rivers, and roaring waterfalls. It was every boy’s fantasyland.

Precocious and inquisitive, Dad learned to read at age four and turned into a bookworm with an insatiable appetite for learning and discovery. He loved science fiction and the Tarzan of the Apes book series, devouring them all, more than once.

Dan and Horse

To ease Dad’s transition into his new environment, my grandfather bought him a horse and two dogs. Thereon, every afternoon after school, he’d set off on his mount to explore the vast wildlands of this fantastic realm. From a high point, he could see a shimmering blue lake, far in the distance, backdropped by four imposing volcanoes — two in permanent, fiery upheaval. His favorite resting spot was a waterfall plunging thirty feet into a crystalline pool teeming with crayfish he loved to catch. He’d stop there to swim and play with his dogs, always on the lookout for lianas by which to swing from tall tree to tall tree like Tarzan.

Guatemala was once ruled by the Maya, one of ancient history’s most advanced civilizations. The fields across which my father roamed were thus strewn with obsidian arrowheads, jade beads, stone axe heads, and pottery fragments which he collected and treasured all his life.

These wild experiences, and the books he read, filled my father’s young imagination with a stirring sense of adventure. By the time he was ten, he yearned to climb the highest mountains, trek across the most inhospitable jungles, and draw maps to guide other explorers. Swept-up in his excitement, he wrote about his dream, and, late one evening, waited for his father to return from work to share his budding aspiration.

I never liked my grandfather. He was cold and stern, stiff like a slab of petrified wood. It wasn’t until he died that Dad told me how the old man used to drag him down to a basement and kick a ball at him with such force it often bruised him. “Be a man! Toughen up! Don’t cry!” he’d yell at his son. My grandfather was also of the idea than a man’s identity is solely defined by his profession so worked long hours and was hardly present in my father’s life.

That night, taking Dad’s story from his hesitant, outstretched hands, the old man adjusted his wire-rim glasses and started reading. Dad, meanwhile, looked up at him with an eager sparkle in his blue eyes, waiting for his blessing.

Done reading, my grandfather looked down and scoffed:

Tsk! So a nobody, that’s what you’re saying… a bum, basically. Is that all you aspire to?”

Before Dad could shake his head and explain, the old man’s callous fist crushed his dream and threw the crumpled paper on the floor. “You will write no more nonsense!” he thundered, and walked away.

In my mind, only two things can explain my grandfather’s reaction.

First, that he thought a man could only earn a living and provide for his family by holding a “respectable” job and feared climbing mountains and drawing maps would lead Dad to failure. In other words, he crushed my father’s dream out of love, wanting to protect him from hardship later in life.

Second, he was jealous, and wasn’t about to let his son bask in heroic limelight. As a boy, he too may have yearned to go on a wild adventure… on his own hero’s journey, but couldn’t, for whatever reason. Perhaps some other dream-crushing ogre stopped him in his tracks.

Whether A, B, or both, not receiving a father’s blessing is one of the deepest and most devastating wounds a child can suffer. Had his boyhood dream been honored, my father would’ve made a dashing world explorer. Instead, he became a businessman, just like his father, and lived to regret it.

As a father myself, I’ve always wanted the best for my two daughters and know how easy it is to buy into the prevailing cultural notions of success and wellbeing. Having also suffered great hardship in life, I found myself steering them in their early teens onto the college track out of a fearful wish to spare them from what I had suffered for not having gone to college myself. I now realize that while I was doing it out of love, my actions were misguided.

As we age, life has a very cruel way of robbing us from our youthful idealism and makes us stop asking the magical questions of childhood: ‘What if?’ ‘I wonder…’ ‘If only…’ One day, we simply stop building castles in the sky. We no longer believe the impossible possible and start playing it safe. So when our children come to us with their own dreamy castles, we call them “impractical” and crush them underfoot, just like my grandfather did.

If “security” and “safety” become watchwords by which [we] live, gradually the circle of [our] experience becomes small and claustrophobic. This suggests that to ask “Why face danger?” is the wrong question. The right question is “What happens if I try to build a life dedicated to avoiding all danger and all risk?” — Sam Keen, ‘Learning to Fly’

I wish Dad would’ve defied his father with the same courage displayed by Richard Halliburton, one of the world’s most dashing explorers and adventurers.

At age 18, Richard wrote this letter to his father in response to his wishes that his son return to his senses and back to Princeton:

Dad, you hit the wrong target when you write that you wish I were at Princeton living “in the even tenor of my way.” I hate that expression and as far as I am able I intend to avoid that condition. When impulse and spontaneity fail to make my “way” as uneven as possible, then I shall sit up nights inventing means of making life as conglomerate and vivid as possible. Those who live in the even tenor of their way simply exist until death ends their monotonous tranquility. No, there’s going to be no even tenor with me. The more uneven it is the happier I shall be. And when my time comes to die, I’ll be able to die happy, for I will have done and seen and heard and experienced all the joy, pain, thrills — every emotion that any human ever had — and I’ll be especially happy if I am spared a stupid, common death in bed. My way is to be ever changing, but always swift, acute, and leaping from peak to peak instead of following the rest of the herd, shackled in conventionalities.

Although he drowned at age 39 in a typhoon while sailing from Hong Kong to San Francisco, Richard had already lived a full and adventurous life most men would kill for.

During his short lifespan, he climbed the Matterhorn, got himself incarcerated at Devil’s Island, hung out with the French Foreign Legion, spent a night atop the Great Pyramid, rode an elephant through the Alps like Hannibal, played Robinson Crusoe on his own desert island, retraced the path of Odysseus, met pirates and headhunters, and bought a two-seater airplane he named the Flying Carpet and flew off to Timbuktu. He swam the Nile, the Panama Canal, the Grand Canal of Venice, and even the reflecting pool at the Taj Mahal. The chronicle of his adventures made him a bestselling author.

In contrast, my father became a businessman, an alcoholic, and for the last twenty years of his life merely a shadow of his former self. While he might’ve died younger than at 88, had his father blessed his boyhood dream, he would’ve lived on his own terms, fulfilling the destiny that was his to live and not the aspirations of someone else.

It is better to live your own destiny imperfectly, than to live the imitation of somebody else’s life perfectly. — The Bhagavad Gita

In ‘Men and the Water of Life,’ mythologist Michael Meade says, “If children were simply satisfied with what the parents offered them, they would remain children forever. It’s not simply that parents don’t try to give enough to the child; rather, it’s that whatever the parents give is never enough. The child has a destiny outside the imagination of the parents.”

If a father does not honor and bless the boy’s own destiny, the boy will grow to become another wounding father and devour his children, just like the Titan Saturn, in a never-ending cycle of wound upon wound.


Jeffrey Erkelens is the creator of ‘The Hero in You,’ a book for boys (10–13) meant to guide them toward an evolved expression of manhood and help them develop the character strengths needed to become caring and passionate men of noble purpose. Sign up here to receive updates on the book’s upcoming publication.

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A Boy Needs to Hear the Shape of his Father’s Heart

Heartvoice (n): 1. The unvarnished and vulnerable unveiling of a man’s wounds, longings, regrets, victories and defeats. 2. A man’s authentic story.

I never heard my father’s.

My father didn’t either.

Not once having heard his father’s heartvoice, Dad did not know how to listen to his own so never allowed me into the inner chambers of his hurt. Never unveiled his wounds. Deeply buried, he never reached them himself, thus never healed.

“If a man, cautious, hides his limp, somebody has to limp it,” warns Robert Bly in ‘My Father’s Wedding.’

A few years before Dad died, I tried to limp his wounds by reconstructing his past. I urged him to face his demons hoping to make him whole. But I arrived too late. By then, his heart was an impregnable fortress and he left this world haunted by a thousand regrets.

“The strongest man,” I’d tell him, “is the one who has the courage to be vulnerable.”

My plea was always met by a puzzled, fear-tinged glance, a discomfited shuffle, a nervous smile, and a reflexive hardening of his armor. Like so many men.

“There is a big difference between being stoic and being in denial,” I’d prod further. “Stoicism is not about repressing our emotions but forming conscious relationships with them. If we don’t, instead of wisely responding to them we’ll keep reacting out of the darkness of our unconscious, invariably in negative ways.”

I wanted him, for instance, to go back to the moment of his childhood when his father would take him down to the basement of their house and kick a ball at him with such force it would often bruise him.

Be a man!” the old man would shout.

Or the time when he was about ten years old and excitedly handed his father a note in which he had scribbled his dream of becoming a world explorer only to see it crushed inside his father’s fist and tossed to the floor with a stern injunction to stop talking nonsense. Not receiving a father’s blessing is the gravest wound a boy can suffer.

I wanted him to grant himself permission to hate his father; to allow the rage to burn through so he could finally move to forgiveness. But all my father could do was make excuses for the ogre who’d bruised and crushed him. “I don’t hate my father,” he’d say. “He did what he had to do to make a man out of me.”

For, brother, what are we?

We are the sons of our father,

Whose face we have never seen,

Whose voice we have never heard. — Thomas Wolfe

There is an inevitable moment in every boy’s life when his father slips and falls from his pedestal. When the boy discovers that his father is not a god, but flawed and fallible like everyone else. This usually occurs when the boy himself falls from grace, around the age of ten, or the onset of puberty.

Adolescence: The age when a boy stops quoting his dad and starts criticizing him. — Evan Esar

In ‘East of Eden,’ author John Steinbeck describes such a moment:

“When a child first catches adults out — when it first walks into his grave little head that adults do not have divine intelligence, that their judgments are not always wise, their thinking true, their sentences just — his world falls into panic desolation. Who knows what causes this — a look in the eye, a lie found out, a moment of hesitation? — then gods are fallen, and all safety gone… and the child’s world is never quite whole again.”

For me, that moment came at age nine when I finally mustered the courage to ask my father why he and Mom did not make love anymore. I don’t know how I found out but surely must’ve panicked when realizing their marriage and our family were falling apart. I had discovered the sham in their relationship and felt unsafe. But instead of his heartvoice, he stared me down with a wrathful glare and shouted, “What did you say!?” which made my jaw quiver and my eyes brim with frightened tears. Without another word, he got up from his chair and walked out of the room.

I had pressed hard on one of his festering wounds, but being the kind of man who never takes time to examine his hurt, he wounded me instead — the default reaction of the bully.

As it is, many fathers exact on the hides and hearts of their children the ire of their frustrations, the thunderbolts of their distress, the suffocating anguish of their dispassionate marriages, the festering anger of their unfulfilled desires, and the dull ache of their tedious, apathetic existence.

In that wretched state, what wisdom can a father impart if he hasn’t taken the time to grapple with the thorniest questions of existence, or the courage to journey through the dark and malodorous corridors of his psyche until coming to terms with the angel in himself and the devil in himself. In that state, it would be more benevolent if he met each of his children’s questions with “I don’t know,” rather than playing God twenty-four hours a day.

To be clear, before a boy falls from grace, I believe the father must remain King. The boy needs to be able to look up to him as an ever-protecting, omniscient and almighty god. The father must stand high above the boy, benevolent, of course, but awe inspiring, even evoking respectful fear. This runs contrary to the stance assumed by far too many fathers who lower themselves to the boy’s level and seek to become his “buddy” which must scare the hell out of a boy.

As King, however, the father must prepare himself for that fateful day when he is found out by the boy. When that happens, rather than stony silence, a raging glare or specious answers, the boy needs to hear his father’s unvarnished story. He needs to be shown his father’s wounds, his many mistakes and the way he’s dealt with life’s inevitable hardships and overcame them. The boy doesn’t need all the answers, simply told where he might find them.

Sad is the man who is asked for a story and can’t come up with one. — Li-Young Lee, A Story

I worry greatly about the millions of American boys now being raised without their fathers’ presence and with little guidance, I suspect, from other positive male role models. Denied the voice of their father’s heart, it is up to the male elders to respond to the responsibilities befitting their age and help initiate these boys into good men. This has become my mission at this stage in my life.

“As a man passes through the elders’ gates,” says mythologist Michael Meade, “his focus shifts from personal striving and status building to attending to the mysteries at the core of the community. The losses in life,” Meade adds, “become the cloth of the cloaks of elders.”

The losses to which Meade alludes, are precisely the ones boys hunger to hear once they’re at the threshold of manhood. They want to feel our wounds and watch us limp. If the elders hide this from view, boys will be forced to do the limping for us. They’ll continue making the same mistakes and perpetuating the many problems of our world which can often be traced back to uninitiated men. The cycle will never break and the hurt won’t heal. To wit, seventy percent of all suicides in 2017 were male.

“The way to guarantee that someone will continue wounding others [or themselves]”, say Michael Meade, “is to keep him ignorant of his own wounds.”

It’s not only boys who need to hear the male heartvoice but all men must be courageous and vulnerable enough to listen to their own.


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Wisdom of the Stars – Episode III

What they teach us about death

“Although everything we love, can, and likely will be taken from us, the radiant vestiges those loves leave in the soul are permanently ours, and the only permanence we’ll ever know.” – Maria Popova

Maria’s words ring in my mind as I sit by my father’s bedside at the hospital after returning from California where I spent Christmas and New Year’s with my daughters. It was on the eve of the new year that I jotted down the first lessons from the stars.

Dad broke his neck before I left, and now lies helpless, fed through a tube, and breathing through an oozing hole in his trachea. Not the way he wanted his story to end; his life- force sputtering in a sterile room flooded with ghostly light, the stench of urine, and the bedeviling sound of monitors displaying the flattening line-graphs of his vitals.

I am glad the Universe foiled my early plan to move to Mexico, and, instead, cast me to his side where I have been for two years. Glad, because such twist of fate allowed me to know my father deeply and prompted me to capture a vivid snapshot of his unconventional life inside the amber of my Memoir.

In ancient Egypt, to be forgotten was one of the worst fates the soul of the deceased could suffer.

Like a town-crier, Dad has been predicting his death for longer than a decade. From the marks of agony and despair furrowing his countenance right now, I am certain there will be no escape this time.

A few years ago, in response to yet another email predicting his near demise and raging at the prospect, I told him to: “Rage, rage for sure, but not about your dying light. Rage against it not blazing as does a star during the final spasms of its annihilation, its self-devouring. Rouse that inner energy to exit the stage in one radiant burst…a luminous climax. Like a Supernova, there are surely some elements you can scatter as you implode.”

In Part One of this Series, I talk about the gifts bestowed by giant stars when they die in a Supernova explosion. The elements in your body, the billions of neurons in your brain firing your thoughts and imagination, all the life-beats of your heart – all the stuff which makes you, you – shaped by the atoms scattered during a giant star’s final act.

Your aims in life, the intensity of your desires, the might of your struggles, and the impact you have on those you encounter on your path will determine whether you blaze like a Supernova, shine like the Sun, or end up like a brown dwarf – halfway between a planet and a star – whose mass, or life-force, is insufficient to spark thermonuclear fusion.

Brown Dwarf

“Death should not concern us,” said Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore. “Death is concerned only with our self and not with this world. The world never loses an atom; it is our self which suffers. Men wish for permanence and not perfection. They forget that the true meaning of living is outliving; it is ever growing out of itself.”

Play it safe, snug in your cocoon, and your life will follow the path of a brown dwarf. Dare to risk everything to fulfill your unique destiny and you’ll shine like a star, a giant one perhaps, even if you fail.

Man’s worth lies not in victory but in the struggle for victory. His worth lies in that he live and die bravely, without condescending to accept any recompense; with the certainty that no recompense exists, and that that certainty, far from making our blood run cold, must fill us with joy, pride, and manly courage. God makes us grubs, and we, by our own efforts, must become butterflies. Like the flying fish, leap out of safe secure waters and enter a more ethereal atmosphere that is filled with madness. Defy the First Cause to overdraw you like a bow without caring if it breaks! – Nikos Kazantzakis


With a nauseating gurgle, a nurse draws brown gunk from my father’s trachea as I keep replaying his life which blazed like a candle lit at both ends until the age I am now, but with a dimmer spirit thereafter. What caused such diminishment, such ebbing of the flame? I wonder. Rather than defying the First Cause, it’s as if he had made a pact with it to stop overdrawing his bow for fear it would break. Perhaps the frenzy of his early years swirling in the chaos of manic-depression had exhausted him and made him seek solace, ensconced for three decades in the quietude surrounding his property tucked in a Northeast swath of wilderness, there to live the remainder of his life undisturbed, released from the messy and often distressing entanglements to which a human life is subject.

While I willingly accept the inevitable price paid with the currency of anxiety, stress, heartache, and ultimate loss for remaining entwined with the world and the people I love, I have no problem with anyone wanting to live a quiet, simple life. In fact, I am on this path myself, seeking that sweet spot between being in this world, but sufficiently removed from it to avoid being drowned by the currents of its meaningless agitation. In other words, in this world, but not of it.

Ancient Chinese culture revered the yinshi, the recluse, who chose to leave the world behind to live more simply. “The tradition,” says philosopher Alain de Botton, “began in the 4th century AD, when a high-ranking government official named Tao Yuanming surrendered his position at court and moved to the countryside to farm the land, make wine, and write.”

Yuanming explains why:

It was in my nature to love the hills and mountains.
Mindlessly I was caught in the dust-filled trap.
Waking up, thirty years had gone.
The caged bird wants the old trees and air.
Fish in their pool miss the ancient stream.
I plough the earth at the edge of South Moor.
Keeping life simple, return to my plot and garden…
Too long a prisoner, captive in a cage,
Now I can get back again to Nature.

Tao Yuanming

Like a flying fish, Tao Yuanming leapt out of safe waters and entered a more ethereal atmosphere. Yet, despite living the life of a recluse, he left behind his poems, gifting us with a renewed sense of wonder and enchantment with the natural world.

Most of us will never be Superstars like Yuanming, or Christ or Buddha; giants whose bursts of creative and purifying light still shine on us today. But I see no reason why we can’t emulate our neighboring star, the Sun, choosing a smaller arena on which to pour the gifts of our unique talents; bending our bow to the breaking point for a cause in which we believe, and shedding joy, warmth, light and love to the living beings in our immediate orbit. It does not have to be something spectacular to be meaningful; a poem, a mended heart, or restored patch of Earth will do.

If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain. – Emily Dickinson

As I see Dad’s haunted and fearful glance fixed on the white wall of his hospital room, Dickinson’s poem reminds me of the time I visited him in New England as he and his wife scouted the area for their permanent move. He had booked two rooms at a shabby roadside motel, and on one of those early, cold winter mornings, I heard a knock on my door. At its threshold, Dad balanced a pink cardboard box on one hand and held a steaming cup on the other. “I brought you donuts and coffee,” he said, as he walked in.

Years later, I came upon a poem by Robert Hayden whose last stanza echoes in my mind every time I recall the tender memory:

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

To most, my father’s donut-and-coffee gesture might not sound extraordinary, but given his austere nature and meager displays of affection, the light and warmth he brought into my room that morning touched me to the core and still brings tears to my eyes when recalled. He became the Sun, and his offering will remain like those radiant vestiges Maria speaks about; permanently mine, never forgotten.

Equally touched were the lives of his grandchildren, leaving behind these indelible soulprints evoked by memory and rendered in their voices:

“You’re the only grandpa I ever had in my life but the only one I ever needed. You taught me how to fish and possess the coolest man cave I have ever come across.”

jewfish1

“Catching my first fish together which we later skinned and cooked, spending countless hours mesmerized by all the trinkets in your dungeon, the walks with you, whether on a late winter afternoon or summer day…such memories only ever remain so perfectly clear when they have meant something truly special to your life.”

Api intellectual curiosity

You fostered my intellectual curiosity and love of a good yarn. I can’t tell you where I’d be without these two qualities, but I know my life would be much smaller.”

“I like to think I get my sense of adventure from you.”

“I think back to the stories you told me about being in the army and how you used to eat light bulbs and put soap under your feet to make yourself pass out. To me, you are and always will be Indiana Jones, Dirty Harry, John Wayne, Han Solo, and every other action hero, adventurer, and explorer.”

Api Sense of Adventure Jungle

“It is difficult to place into words the impact you have had on me. Through good and bad there has always been an adventure! Adventure of pretending to trek through the jungle or explore the deserts of New Mexico. For any kid, it would have been just another day, but it was you and your imagination that helped transport me to some of the most cherished memories I have.”

Api stardust

“You taught me to spot birds, about forests and streams, knives, and kindling fire with nothing but flint. Your stories made my imagination whirl, from carving ‘Pinocchio’ with broken glass shards, to catching monkeys with coconut shells down in Panama. In my boyish mind, you were the embodiment of a dream boyhood. Part pirate, part cowboy, part rock-star, part soldier, part grandfather. You were tough as nails, dressed the part, and encouraged an unquenchable curiosity (if not a bit of rebellion) which made my heart and imagination soar.”

Api and girls

Alex Haley was right in saying grandparents sprinkle stardust over the lives of little children.

I place a cold, wet cloth on Dad’s forehead, slide the thin covers of his hospital bed up to his shoulders, hold his hand, and watch him fall asleep.

Once his light is out, I will be next in line.

“Just as a book is bounded by its covers, by beginning and end, so our lives are bounded by birth and death,” wrote philosopher Stephen Cave. “You can only know the moments in between; the moments that make up your life. It makes no sense for you to fear what is outside of those covers, whether before your birth or after your death. And you needn’t worry how long the book is, or whether it’s a comic strip or an epic. The only thing that matters is that you make it a good story.

We are on this Earth but briefly, I mumble, as I turn off the overhead light and walk out. There really is no time for anything but meaningful acts if we live with death as our eternal companion.


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